First Lady (Wynette, Texas #4)


by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

1

CORNELIA LITCHFIELD CASE had an itchy nose. Otherwise, it was a very elegant nose. Perfectly shaped, discreet, polite. Her forehead was patrician, her cheekbones gracefully carved, but not so sharp as to be vulgar. The Mayflower-blue blood that rushed through her veins gave her a pedigree even finer than that of Jacqueline Kennedy, one of her most famous predecessors.

A French twist contained her long, fair hair, which she would have cut off years ago if her father hadn’t forbidden it. Later her husband had suggested—oh-so-gently, because he was always gentle with her—that she leave it long. So there she was, an American aristocrat with a hairstyle she hated and an itchy nose that she couldn’t scratch because hundreds of millions of people all over the world were watching her on their televisions.

Burying a husband sure could take the fun out of your day.

She shuddered and tried to swallow her hysteria as she crept another inch closer to falling apart. She forced herself to concentrate on the beauty of the October day and the way the sun gleamed on the rows of grave markers at Arlington National Cemetery, but the sky was too close, the sun too near. Even the ground felt as if it were pushing up to crush her.

The men on either side of her moved closer. The new President of the United States gripped her arm. Her father clasped her elbow. Directly behind her, the grief of Terry Ackerman, her husband’s closest friend and advisor, rolled over her in a great, dark wave. They were suffocating her, stealing the air she needed to breathe.

She beat back a scream by curling her toes in her neat black leather pumps, biting the inside of her bottom lip, and mentally launched into the chorus of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” The Elton John song reminded her that he’d written another song, one for a dead princess. Would he now write one for an assassinated President?

No! Don’t think about that! She’d think about her hair, her itchy nose. She’d think about the way she hadn’t been able to swallow food since her secretary had broken the news that Dennis had been assassinated three blocks from the White House by a gun fanatic who believed his right to bear arms included the right to use the President of the United States for target practice. The assassin had been killed on the spot by a Washington, D.C., police officer, but that didn’t change the fact that her husband of three years, the man she’d once loved so desperately, lay before her in a gleaming black casket.

She broke her father’s grip to reach up and touch the small enameled American flag she’d pinned to the lapel of her black suit. It was the pin Dennis had worn so frequently. She’d give it to Terry. She wished she could turn around right now and hand it to him, perhaps ease his grief.

She needed hope—something positive to cling to—but that was tough even for a determined optimist. And then she hit on it . . .

She was no longer the First Lady of the United States of America.

A few hours later, that small bit of comfort was snatched from her by Lester Vandervort, the newest President of the United States, as he regarded her across Dennis Case’s old desk in the Oval Office. The box of Milky Way miniatures her husband had kept in Teddy Roosevelt’s humidor had disappeared, along with his collection of photographs. Vandervort had added no personal touches of his own, not even a photograph of his deceased wife, an oversight she knew his staff would soon correct.

Vandervort was a thin man, ascetic in his appearance. He was fiercely intelligent, almost entirely humorless, and a confirmed workaholic. A sixty-four-year-old widower, he was now the world’s most eligible bachelor. For the first time since the death of Edith Wilson eighteen months after Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration, the United States had no First Lady.

The air inside the Oval Office was climate-controlled, the three-story windows that rose behind the desk bulletproof, and she felt as if she were suffocating. As she stood by the fireplace, staring blindly at Rembrandt Peale’s portrait of Washington, the new President’s voice seemed far away. “. . . don’t want to appear insensitive to your grief by broaching this now, but I have no choice. I won’t be remarrying, and none of my female relatives is remotely capable of handling the job of First Lady. I want you to continue in that role.”

As she turned to him, her fingernails bit into her palms. “It’s impossible. I can’t do it.” She wanted to scream at him that she was still wearing her funeral clothes, but excessive displays of emotion had been leached out of her long before she’d come to the White House.

Her distinguished father rose from one of a pair of couches covered in cream damask and assumed his Prince Philip posture—hands clasped behind his back, weight toward his heels. “This has been a difficult day for you, Cornelia. You’ll be seeing things more clearly tomorrow.”

Cornelia. Everyone who mattered in her life called her Nealy except her father. “I’m not going to change my mind.”

“Of course you will,” he countered. “This administration has to have a competent First Lady. The President and I have considered it from every angle, and both of us agree this is the ideal solution.”

She was an assertive woman, except when it came to her father, and she had to steel herself to challenge him. “Ideal for whom? Not for me.”

James Litchfield gave her the patronizing look he’d been using to control people for as long as she could remember. Ironically, he had more power now as chairman of the party than he’d had during his eight years as Vice President of the United States. Her father was the one who’d first spotted the presidential potential of Dennis Case, the handsome bachelor governor of Virginia. Four years ago, he’d capped off his reputation as a king-maker by escorting his daughter down the aisle to marry that very same man.

“I know better than anyone how traumatic this has been, ” he continued, “but you’re the most visible link between the Case and Vandervort administrations. The country needs you.”

“Don’t you mean the party needs me?” They all knew that Lester’s lack of personal charisma would make it difficult for him to be elected President on his own. Although he was an able politician, he lacked even a kilowatt of President Dennis Case’s star power.

“We’re not just thinking of reelection,” her father lied as smoothly as new cream. “We’re thinking of the American people. You’re an important symbol of stability and continuity.”

Vandervort spoke briskly. “As First Lady, you’ll keep your old office and the same staff. I’ll make sure you have everything you need. Take a month to recuperate at your father’s place on Nantucket, and then we’ll ease you back into the schedule, beginning with the white-tie reception for the diplomatic corps. Keep mid-January blocked out for the G-8 summit, and the South American trip is a necessity. All of this is already on your schedule, so it shouldn’t be a problem.”